Our view

Lay the foundations

To judge by current trends, the world population will peak at not quite 11 billion people around the turn of the next century. Incalculable disasters like wars and pandemics are unlikely to make more than small dents.

is editor-in-chief of D+C/E+Z.

Kenyan grandmother with grandchild. Schytte/Lineair Kenyan grandmother with grandchild.

At this stage,  Covid-19 looks frightening, but even if it killed millions, that number would still be relatively small. To put things in perspective: World War II killed an estimated 60 to 80 million people. In recent years, the world population has grown by such a number anually.

Societies change, and social norms vary, but the patterns of how family sizes evolve are clear all over the world. Nations are ageing as life expectancies rise and women bear fewer children. These trends are actually rather stable, so  predictions with unusual reliability are possible if one knows:

  • how many women there are,
  • what age cohorts they belong to,
  • how many children they will have on average, and
  • at what age they tend to have their babies.

Population growth is slowing down – and that is good news. Otherwise, environmental sustainability would certainly remain illusive. Moreover, declining birth rates result from girls getting better educations and women having more choices. It helps that parents know their babies are likely to survive.

In many countries, the share of the elderly is increasing fast. They no longer have the large extended families that took care of the aged in more traditional times. Social protection systems are needed. That is not only so in the affluent West, but also concerns Asian countries, in particular China. This is not just a question of money. Retirement homes, frail-care facilities, hospitals and other social support systems need to be staffed.

Today, the health-care systems of prosperous but ageing nations are poaching skilled migrants from poorer and demographically younger countries. But what will happen when the adverse impacts of ageing start affecting those countries? To some extent, technology and robots may help. But people need personal interaction too. A large and probably growing proportion of working-age people will have to provide social services professionally.

If things are left to market competition, only the prosperous few will enjoy decent lives in old age. If no one is to be left behind, state-run schemes must ensure that everyone has at least a minimum pension and public services are available. Getting things right requires political will, intelligent policies and effective implementation.

It helps when a country takes advantage of the specific window of opportunity that demographic change offers early on. Emerging markets in East and South East Asia benefited massively from “demographic dividends”. Industrialisation took off when large cohorts of young people were available as workers because they had neither many young children nor sickly grandparents to take care of. Greater prosperity is a precondition for stronger social-protection schemes. The big challenge for low and lower-middle-income countries is to ensure they grasp a demographic dividend.

Global cooperation will help to get a grip on the matter. It is also needed to put a check on Covid-19 and to stop global warming. Global trends can and must be managed in a way to ensure that 11 billion people can live good lives on the planet we share.

Hans Dembowski is the editor in chief of D+C Development and Cooperation / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit.

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